Backcountry Destinations Getting GPS Recognition

By Scott Spangler on February 21st, 2022

Aviation is not exempt from the aphorism that what goes around comes around. When humans first flew on powered wings, their fields of operation were unimproved, what military aviation now describes as austere. (While the people who selected this word might embody its first dictionary definition of “stern and cold in appearance or manner,” they went for the third, “markedly simple or unadorned.”)

As aviation progressed, so did its fields of operation and the technology that helped pilots safely to, from, and between them in ever less visibility. Like most things expensive, this technology trickled down from military and commercial aviation to general aviators. Embracing this new technology and the capabilities it provided, flying IFR with numeric precision was the holy grail starting about half a century ago.

But that technology, from VORs to Loran to GPS driving a digital autopilot with Autoland capabilities, seemingly has excised some of the challenges aviation posed to aviators drawn skyward by opportunities to acquire and test new skills and abilities. What goes around comes around, so these aviators looked back and rediscovered the stick-and-rudder skills that atrophied during the IFR era and challenged themselves at unimproved “austere” backcountry airstrips.

You can’t miss these adventurous folks. They fly airplanes with big tires. And you can see their eyes, which are always up and looking around, the first step in making what they see look safe by moving the stick (or yoke, but usually a stick), rudder, and throttle. In 2003, a band of these adventurous aviators established the Recreational Aviation Foundation as a nonprofit 501(c)3 to support, develop, and promote recreational flying to backcountry airports on public land.

Eschewing the IFR environment doesn’t mean these outward looking aviators discard all of the technology that makes flight within it possible. Only the foolhardy would consciously fly with GPS, even when their desired backcountry destinations were rarely, if at all, were included in the database. But that is about to change. On February 9, Avidyne, Jeppesen, and RAF announced the formation of a team dedicated to include in Jeppesen Nav Databases for aviation GPS systems the information for existing and new backcountry airstrips on public and private land.

The benefits of this are straightforward. “Adding more of those type of airstrips to the Jeppesen Nav databases of aviation GPS units makes it much easier for a larger number of private pilots across the country to gain access and enjoy the benefits and freedom of flying that we all cherish,” said Avidyne President Dan Schwinn. “Our goal is to promote back country flying and to encourage more pilots to join us in the adventure of flight,” said RAF Chairman John McKenna. “Avidyne actively supports the RAF and we really appreciate their efforts working with Jeppesen to enhance the NAV databases so these not-so-mainstream kinds of places can find their way onto the screens of modern avionics.”

But just because pilots will be able to find these backcountry destinations in their GPS database does not mean unprepared pilots can safely visit them. Unlike many of the airports in the destination database, there are no related instrument approaches for the autopilot to fly. In the backcountry, the pass/fail margin for short and soft-field flight operations are tighter than an FAA checkride by several orders of magnitude.

In one regard, backcountry flying is the same as instrument flying. If you go there without the requisite training, proficiency, and planning, bad things will happen. If you think flying an ILS to minimums is “exciting,” consider a VFR approach to Idaho’s Soldier Bar (85U). The 1,650-by-15-foot dirt Runway 7/25 is on a mountain-side shoulder in Big Creek Canyon, 500 feet above the eponymous Big Creek.

Runway 25 has two bumps, one 450 feet from the approach end and another 905 feet from the approach end, just before the runway doglegs to the right. Having landed here once (as a passenger) the pilot emphasized precise speed control and the need to touch down after the first bump, to hitting it would not throw his de Havilland Beaver back into the air. Just to make things interesting, Runway 25 has a 4-degree slope to the right, toward Big Creek. The approach end of Runway 7 also slopes down 4 degrees, and given the dogleg and second bump, prudent pilots NEVER attempt an approach or landing on Runway 7. It should be no surprise that GO-AROUNDS ARE NOT RECOMMENDED.

As it is for every aspect of aviation, acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills are the essential keys to safety and survival. If curious about the backcountry destinations coming soon to your GPS database, a good place to start is the RAF’s Education & Safety page. While knowledge, training, and the accompanying pilot proficiency are crucial, you don’t necessarily need big tires. Everyday rollers will do at many backcountry destinations, although you may want to leave your (wheel) pants at home.

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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